Last Night's Television: Trouble In Amish Paradise<br />The Beast, Five, USA

By Deborah Orr
Thursday 19 February 2009 01:00

“It would have been much easier,” Ephraim Stoltzfus declared in measured, even casual tones, “if they’d just killed us.” Instead, Ephraim, his wife, Amanda, and their four children had merely been excommunicated and shunned. Trouble in Amish Paradise was, in part, Ephraim’s plea for understanding from his own community, and a pretty desperate plea, too, since the Amish are by no means inveterate couch potatoes.

Ephraim didn’t mean that death would have been easier for him. He was concerned about his wider family, who were pained by their obligation to shun their six relatives and who wanted nothing more than for them to acquiesce to the rules, so that they could all carry on as before. But Stoltzfus was done with the rules, even though you |wouldn’t know that to look at him. He and his family still dressed in the Amish way, in costumes so prescriptive that even the width of a hatband or the correct manner of meeting between braces and trousers is non-negotiable. Their house still looked Amish, too, even though they had broken with another basic tenet of the Amish way of life, and had sold their farm for $100,000.

That’s not what prompted their excommunication, though. The Stoltzfuses had angered the Amish bishops and invited their shunning because of a matter of faith. They were concerned that tradition had weakened the personal relationship of an Amish worshipper with God. The Amish are allowed only to use the bibles brought to the US by their forefathers, even though none of them speak German any more. They cannot use English bibles or host informal bible study groups. It was in order to do these things that the Stoltzfuses had broken with their families and their culture.

Adrift, the family remained ardent in their |religiosity. As a treat on his son’s seventh birthday, Ephraim took him into town to spread the gospel. This was one of the advantages of excommunication. The Amish would find such behaviour proud or even arrogant, but freed of such constraint, Ephraim had printed flyers described as “million-dollar bills”, which he handed out to bewildered passersby, explaining that the Word of God was more valuable than all the dollars in the world. He wasn’t kidding, either. Ephraim didn’t announce directly to the camera that the family had given their $100,000 to a deserving cause, but the voice-over explained that while the film-makers did not know the details, this had been done.

Isolated and unsure what church to join now that they were no longer welcome at the church they had always attended, the family struggled on. By autumn, their daughter Marie wasn’t |feeling well, and a doctor diagnosed leukaemia and advised three years of treatment at $3,000 a day. In the face of this calamity, the old friends of the Stoltzfuses rebelled, offering support and vowing that somehow they would fix things so that the aid fund run by the Amish in preparation for such emergencies would meet the bills. The Stoltzfuses, of course, accepted the help – what else could they do? But their dilemma (culture versus conviction) had been made all the more stark.

Without the Amish, the Stoltzfuses could not materially provide for their daughter. Yet without the new relationship with God they had been able to forge by leaving, neither parent felt that they would have the strength to face the crisis that had engulfed them. Rare access to a closed and elaborately conformist culture would have made this documentary remarkable anyway. But Marie’s unforeseen and devastating illness provided a profound and unanswerable insight into the resilience and indefatigability of personal faith.

After that stifling and intense look into the minds and hearts of people who took their temporal and spiritual lives so fervently and uncompromisingly seriously, it was something of a relief to escape into The Beast, a lavish Patrick Swayze vehicle combining gloss and grit in the way that only television shows with Hollywood- movie budgets can. The scenario is familiar: Charles Barker (Patrick Swayze) is a hard-|bitten undercover FBI man, so hollowed out |in his years of fighting for justice that he has |barely hung on to his humanity. Ellis Dove (Travis Fimmel), his newly assigned partner, was |chosen by Barker because “he looks at you, sees himself 20 years ago. Does that scare you? |Because it should.”

The action is familiar, too. Last night, an arms-dealing gang was dispatched with unconventional yet effective lack of ceremony, and Dove, forced to smoke crack, take beatings, and, worst of all, cancel dates, was converted from resentful tyro into insanely loyal bagman. It’s clearly targeted at 24 viewers, although if I had to cite the one film that it reminded me of most, in terms of atmosphere, then it would have to be The Usual Suspects. Fast-paced, stylish and psychologically involving, it’s a crock of very hot shit and is bound to be hugely successful.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments